Clubs In Crisis II – Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth & Manchester United Redux
There are still a few yellowing old Sunday Express’s in our attic, full of intellect-free, right-wing twaddle (so different now, eh?) from the likes of John Junor, who once famously asked “wouldn’t you rather admit to being a pig than to being Irish?”, and I have every faith that if any of the sports sections survive, there’ll be an article somewhere declaring: “Sheffield Wednesday takeover imminent.” This week’s version is “Owls deal could be just days away,” with the Sheffield Star newspaper advisedly unspecific on the number of days. Former Wednesday player and manager Chris Turner is trying to reconstitute a deal which was recently rejected by Hartlepool United and led, at least in part, to Turner’s current “freelance” status.
It could be argued that picking up Hartlepool’s cast-offs is a(nother) sign of how far Wednesday have fallen in the two decades since they were briefly among Europe’s finest – well, in the UEFA Cup, anyway – although that would be a little disrespectful to modern-day Hartlepool. Or it could be argued that the main danger for Wednesday is that their board will take any old cods of a deal just to end this takeover trauma. That, though, pre-supposes a willingness among Wednesday directors to do the right thing by the club, a willingness that has come under particularly intense scrutiny in recent weeks, mainly from Wednesday ex-chairman Lee Strafford.
Strafford’s “official” statements on his May departure as chairman hinted at a massive back story. His demeanour at times during June’s Supporters Direct conference debate on club ownership suggested that back story was still, at the very least, in the back of his mind, occasionally letting slip his specific disaffections during his very listenable contribution to that debate. A week later, he gave a detailed interview to the Star, which outlined that back story and his disaffection with board members, finance director Bob Grierson especially. And this week, Strafford finished that back story with a mind-numbingly detailed dismantling of the board’s case for…oooh… everything. He goes on a bit, it can be said. And he won’t be troubling any best-sellers lists. But he won’t be up for the Booker Prize for fiction, either, I’m guessing. The details will be for another article, I promise/threaten.
Another ex-director getting his case dismantled this week was ex-chairman Dave Allen, for his role in a very early failed takeover, that of former Everton director and “entertainment impresario” Paul Gregg in 2007. Allen forcefully blamed the Supporters Trust Wednesdayite for the failure. Wednesdayite said “not our fault.” And this week, both sides said it again. This mass outbreak of “he said, she said” has emanated from the publication of unratified minutes of a meeting between Wednesdayite representatives and board members, Chief Executive Nick Parker and the afore-mentioned Grierson. The minutes appeared in extended form – an ex-directors’ cut, if you will – with copious addenda from Strafford, pointing out what he saw as… um… ’differing interpretations’ of events from the minutes – ”that is a lie” being his favoured way of hinting at them.
The Gregg issue arose from a throwaway comment from Grierson – many would file every Grierson comment in that column – about the long list of past potential investors. Grierson said Gregg “went through due diligence…then changed his mind and said he wasn’t going into football.” Wednesdayite reps, not otherwise noted for believing Grierson, saw this as proof that Allen had been wrong to blame them. When the minutes were published, Allen, now leading Chesterfield football club to their destiny, immediately refuted Grierson’s claims. He “had a letter” which showed that Gregg pulled out because of Wednesday-ite. Except that it didn’t. The Star published the relevant extracts this week. The letter was from Allen’s solicitors, Salans, and said: “One of the crucial reasons why our client decided to withdraw was recognition that the acquisition of only 30% of the club could be delivered with any certainty.
“In addition, the potential blocking ability (my emphasis) of the Supporters’ Trust’s 10% was a clear detraction from making the full offer.” In other words, it was the 10%, not the holders of it, which concerned Gregg. As Wednesdayite noted this week, “Gregg never once attempted to speak to (us),” adding: “Our members were balloted on the sale of our shares to a subsequent interested party and approved this.” The relevance of all this to Wednesday’s current plight is indirect at best. But it highlights the sort of s**te the club needs to consign to history if it is ever to regain its rightful place in English football, which, with support like they have, is not League One, no offence whatsoever to others in that division. And, anyway, by the time you read this, Wednesday’s takeover may actually BE imminent. Then again, maybe not.
Portsmouth administrator Andrew Andronikou’s campaign to have his name in the papers every-bloody-day has had a few recent boosts. There’s been a massive case of the biter bit with Italian club Genoa yet to stump up the cash for the summer signing of Kevin Prince-Boateng. And the (bad) luck of the Carling Cup draw gave former Pompey chairman Milan Mandaric two visits to his old “happy” hunting ground, in his continuing role as Leicester City chairman. How long he will be continuing is a question not even he can answer, apparently, having sold his Foxes interest to a Thai consortium and pledged to hang around during the transition period, much as he did alongside whichever Gaydamak it was he sold his Pompey interests to in 2006. As soon as “Mandaric mulls Pompey return” tales appeared, so did “Mandaric denies Pompey return” stories – although both sets of stories evolved from the same set of Mandaric words.
The irony of Mandaric, with his current “disputed” tax history, returning to Portsmouth with their currently “disputed” everything-to-do-with-money history could only be lost on a part-American like Mandaric himself. But Andronikou has been happy to talk to him as Mandaric presents no clear and present danger to his dream of selling the club back to ex-owner Balram Chainrai, regardless of the best interests of the club. Ever since Andronikou first appeared on our screens, and in some unfortunate’s autograph book, he has been pushing Chainrai forward as Pompey’s post-administration owner, even when Chainrai didn’t sound so keen himself. Famously, Andronikou said “without sounding like his PR agent,” Chainrai “ticked all the boxes,” at a time when proof of funds to buy the club and take it forward were two of the boxes. And, as oft-quoted Pompey fan Mike Hall noted, this was also a time when Chainrai was talking exclusively about taking his money out of the club.
Andronikou was less welcoming to another interested party, Rob Lloyd. “I’m not saying this guy is a chancer,” Andronikou… er… said, while confirming that Lloyd’s people had “provided proof of funds…signed a non-disclosure agreement.” He added that Lloyd’s people “have got to put their right foot in front of their left and come towards us,” although at the time, it was difficult to see what more Lloyd could do with his feet…apart from the obvious, violent suggestion that has just occurred to us all. And Andronikou has been utterly contemptuous of more recent interest from 21-year-old Mancunian “entrepreneur” Tom Lever. “Pompey administrator is ‘worried’ at new takeover bid’ ran one local newspaper headline, even though Lever’s people had already provided more ‘proof of funds’ for the club’s future than Chainrai. “There were 401 conditions attached to it,” noted Andronikou, describing negotiations with Lever’s people as “debate and debacle.”
There is, let’s be clear, little superficial to commend Lever. His bid seems as credible as any from a 21-year-old Mancunian which, no disrespect to Mancunia, isn’t a plus. But that isn’t an actual decision that Andronikou should make at such an early stage. Whereas it seems it’s a decision he has made long ago, about anyone who isn’t Balram Chainrai. The fact that Chainrai’s business partner Levi Kushnir spent transfer deadline day at the club’s Fratton Park offices suggested as such. Andronikou’s explanation of his presence stated as much. “As owners,” Andronikou said, “he and Balu (Andronikou’s pet name for Chainrai?) just wanted to know what we were doing.” “He and Balu” were “owners”? On September 1st?? As Lee Strafford might say, “this is a lie.”
Recently, David Conn has been filling his regular Guardian column on the murkier aspects of football finance (i.e. most of it) with more anti-Glazer stuff than ever. This has led to more criticism than ever, particularly accusations of a pro-Manchester City slant. His questioning of the £7.4m transfer of hitherto-unknown Portuguese youngster Bebe has got plenty of Manchester goats, with one wag (OK, it was me) suggesting that Ferguson might “do a BBC” on Guardian Towers and refuse to talk to the paper. This would give Conn another badge of honour alongside his many journalistic awards… and his ban from Leeds by Ken Bates, possibly the most coveted of the lot.
Conn’s latest piece on the Glazer family concentrated on the ever-decreasing fortunes of their Gridiron National Football League (NFL) franchise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was partly to emphasise the general financial struggles within the Glazer business empire – United won’t be getting any help with their debts from other Glazer “enterprises” – and partly as a portent for United’s future, should Glazer finances not improve.
While Conn’s support for Manchester City still appears to be “breaking news” in certain parts of the worldwide web, there was other criticism, from Gridiron fans claiming that he’d misinterpreted NFL financial information to suit his anti-Glazer agenda. One critic noted that Conn could only garner Stateside support for his view from “an agent.” But it was the support for the Glazers in the article that caught my eye, as a London-based Bucs fan, Paul Stewart, trotted out the old, utterly discredited line that the Glazers should be trusted to do the right thing because they are “business people.” Stewart also pointed out that Forbes magazine, that giant of in-depth sports analysis, said the Bucs valuation had increased fivefold since the Glazers bought them in 1995.
Reading Stewart’s simplistic take on the Glazers reminded me of a Bucs fans with whom I used to work twenty years ago. This guy, Paul Maguinness, was extremely pro-American, which was extremely irritating, yet the zenith of what passed for his personality. He was a mere Civil Service middle-manager – one grade above me, and I was just a clerk. But he believed he was destined for greater things, a belief he manifested in the most annoying ways. His inappropriate sports car, with its detachable roof (as we happily proved on one particularly wet day). His fake mobile phone, for which the phrase “well, it was the 80s” was no excuse. His slavish following of every management edict, however stupid… and “it was the 80s”, so some of them were very stupid indeed.
The pro-American rubbish led him to keep wicket for us in an inter-firm cricket match wearing one… ONE baseball glove. “It’s more efficient,” he insisted. Wrongly. The cheers which resonated around the Civil Service Sports Ground when he was bowled first ball…were from his own team. In short, he was just the sort of pillock who would fall for the Glazers. “Just like this Paul Stewart guy,” I thought, when I suddenly remembered that Maguinness’s personalised date stamp (of course he had one) bore the “legend” Paul S. Maguinness, and that while the “S” could have stood for s***head, it actually stood for… Stewart. The Buccaneers web-site showed that it was indeed the same middle-manager no-life who once sent our deputy chief executive flowers because “these things help you get on in the real business world.” A middle-manager no-life who, it seems, has even changed his name, lest anyone remember he was a middle-manager no-life. So while stateside support for Conn’s Glazer view only came from “an agent,” UK support for the pro-Glazer view only came from “an arsehole.” The surest sign yet that Manchester United are in financial trouble, if you ask me.